By Kevin Miller
AUGUSTA – A legislative committee has reached a tentative compromise that would allow alewives in the St. Croix River up to the Grand Falls dam this year.
A majority of members of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee have voted once in support of a bill that would reopen the Woodland dam to alewives, also known as river herring, for the first time since 1995. The committee is expected to revisit the vote this Wednesday.
The original version of LD 1957 would have allowed sea-run alewives to swim above both the Woodland and Grand Falls dams in the St. Croix. But that bill, like similar proposals in past years, encountered stiff opposition from registered guides and others who fear the sea-run alewives will destroy the prized smallmouth bass and landlocked salmon fisheries in the area.
Under the amended version, the Department of Marine Resources and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would work together to develop a river herring management plan before any alewives would be allowed beyond Grand Falls.
The two departments would consult with the leadership of the Passamaquoddy Tribe when developing the plan. An earlier proposal would have given Passamaquoddy leaders, who have lobbied against upriver passage of alewives, an equal role in development of a management plan.
The presence — or lack thereof — of alewives in the St. Croix has been an inflammatory issue during the past 15 years.
Registered guides and their supporters convinced the Legislature to close the St. Croix to river herring in 1995 after a collapse of smallmouth bass population in Spednic Lake. Although an invasive species in Maine, bass are a critical part of the sporting economy in many areas of the state, including within the St. Croix watershed.
Guides blamed the bass crash on sea-run alewives, but biologists and conservation groups disagree and point out that that bass and sea-run alewives co-exist in other Maine lakes. The two sides also disagree on whether sea-run alewives were able to make it past Grand Falls before the dams were built.
Sen. Dennis Damon, the Trenton Democrat who sponsored LD 1957, said he believes the current proposal is a first step toward proving that alewives do not pose a threat to bass populations.
“As with most legislation, it’s a matter of compromise,” said Damon, who is co-chairman of the Marine Resources Committee. “I was very interested and still remain interested in seeing the alewives … returned to their native habitat.”